UPDATE: "Home" video now available, see below
Sony head of worldwide studios Phil Harrison used his Game Developers Conference keynote to unveil an initiative he calls Game 3.0 – which essentially takes inspiration from aspects of Web 2.0 such as social networking and user-generated content and adds them to the PlayStation 3. The key ways, at least initially, in which Game 3.0 will manifest itself are a new service accessible from the PS3’s Cross-Media Bar called Home – a 3D avatar- based space not dissimilar to Second Life, in which PlayStation Network users can meet, socialise, play mini-games and set up online games, and an innovative game from the (previously indie) makers of Rag Doll Kung Fu entitled Little Big Planet, in which users will be encouraged to generate their own levels.
Home is clearly an attempt to endow the PlayStation Network with qualities relevant to frequenters of MySpace, YouTube and Second Life not possessed by Xbox Live, and it looks pretty impressive, although it does raise a few questions. Harrison put it into context by showing a slide filled with “Expressions synonymous with Game 3.0,” such as “social, content creation, communication, creativity and emergent behaviour,” adding: “It ends up as emergent entertainment, where we don’t define the rules as game creators; we’re actually putting the power back in the hands of content users rather than creators.”
He then launched into a demo of Home: “Home is a 3D avatar-based community for the PS3 accessible from a new icon on the Cross-Media Bar. It’s a free download that gives access to a vast community of connected users. The first place you land when you come into Home is what we call the central lobby or the central lounge. Here, you can see that you have an avatar and that you get a Virtual PSP – this is where you get shortcuts that allow you very quickly to access some of the features of home. We can dive in and instantly start changing and customising our characters. There will be a standard set of clothing which is available at the beginning; you’ll also be able to buy additional clothing, and to get clothing unlocked for you when you buy PlayStation 3 games.”
Harrison then showed a powerful-looking face customisation program and took his character for a walk around the central lobby. While, architecturally, it looked impressive, he pointed out a few aspects that could prove contentious: “You’ll notice that there are embedded ads, such as posters for forthcoming games and HD-quality video.” Other avatars were present – “Everyone else in the space is a PS3 user. You can launch animations, text- chat, voice-chat and video-chat.” He said that Sony has developed a system called Quickwrite, which: “Gives the ability to string together very quick sentences.” Some lag was apparent in the voice-chat.
Next stop was the Games Lounge: “It is designed to allow social interaction with other users, by allowing you to play low-intensity games,” such as pool, bowling and virtual arcade machines, all accessible simply by walking up to them. Next, he introduced the concept of private spaces in Home: “Everyone in Home will be given an apartment, so you can invite your buddy list back to your place.” Private spaces looked agreeably customisable: “You can download more furniture and it’s physics-based, so you can make a pile of sofas if you want. It’s your place, so it’s your rules. You can launch multiplayer games from here, so it’s a very quick way of creating communities for games, and you can customise it with media from your PS3’s hard disk.”
Harrison then moved back to the public spaces, showing a virtual cinema and adding: “The home network is evolving – it’s not just about Sony content and game content –we expect to extend to non-game brands.” He showed a mock-up of an area, which would be run by a brand, in which you could play a football penalty shoot-out contest, basketball and golf (clearly a space with EA in mind). “And this is the last part: the Hall of Fame. This is a new feature for the PlayStation Network – users get real 3D trophies commemorating milestones in PS3 games – it will be your personal trophy room.” And there will also be an enormous room in which you can browse all trophies, including ones from games not yet released.
Harrison said that Home is currently in closed beta-testing, and a more publicly accessible beta trial will open in April; the service will launch in “Fall 2007”. In general, Home looked very impressive, and it will certainly steal a march on Xbox Live – it will be interesting to see how Microsoft responds. The prospect, though, that some content will be paid for and that public spaces could be studded with advertising may not endear it to some, though.
Next, Harrison briefly demoed Singstar: “Which embodies some of the cool user- created functionality of the PlayStation 3 and the Game 3.0 concept.” As in previous demos, he showed how to preview and buy songs from the PlayStation Store, but he also revealed that: “You will be able to upload, to the Media Gallery, playbacks recorded using Eye Toy and other means, share them with other users on My Singstar, and other users can rate them.” Singstar, he said, will launch in Europe in early June and in the US later in the autumn.
Harrison’s next demo was the most impressive: a previously unseen game called Little Big Planet. Created by the indie team behind Rag Doll Kung Fu – Harrison said: “We loved this game, and we thought it was an embodiment of the independent community building really great games with their own inspiration, their own money and sharing it freely over the network.” The team has since set up as a developer called Media Molecule.
Here, Harrison enlisted the help of Media Molecule founders Mark Keeley and Alex Evans, who set about using the in-game tools to create a level. Evans said: “This isn’t about a separate editor and separate games – it’s about creativity on the PlayStation 3.” Evans and Keeley started off with a soft-toy- style character, apparently made from hessian, showing first how it could be made to move using the six-axis controller, then populating the space they were in with objects. Evans said: “Everything in this game is made from real materials – for example, if you take this block of wood and put this cog on it, it moves as you expect.” Evans and Keeley introduced objects such as an orange, a giant football (everything could be quickly resized to taste) and a tree apparently made from felt, and quickly constructed a platform-style level. Another key concept in the game was the ability to slap stickers onto any surface, bringing about a sumptuous visual appearance. They were also able to mess around – Keeley’s character, for example, sticking flowers onto a cog as it spun round. Evans said: “They are very tactile environments – you can spend as long as you like with your friends and make entire games.”
Harrison and his Media Molecule chums then demoed a four-player co-op, yet competitive romp through a more sophisticated level, in which the players competed to collect sponges – at one point, a player had to hold down a lever allowing the others to progress, and at other points, they had to combine their strength to move large objects. Evans added: “Another key game mechanic is grabbing – you can grab each other or objects,” and he showed that you can grab moving objects and use their momentum to launch yourself to out-of-the- way places. You could also take Polaroid-style snapshots of memorable in-game moments.
Neither Harrison nor Media Molecule would be drawn on how much pre-generated content the game would ship with, but it looked amazing, and agreeably tactile – Media Molecule did admit that they had “Been playing a lot of Loco Roco when we came up with the idea.” Harrison said Little Big Planet: “Will be out later this year on the network and early next year on Blu-ray disk.”
Next up was a short demo of WarHawk. Harrison revealed that: “There has been a strategic change for the game – it will be exclusively online, with a multiplayer focus. At the preview event the night before Harrison’s keynote, attendees were able to get hands-on experience of the game, which is playable by up to 30 people simultaneously. The tank-driving and foot-based FPS aspects of the game seemed rather divorced from the aerial dogfighting, despite the presence of ant-aircraft guns which foot soldiers could man. And putting out WarHawk as an online-only effort is hardly a vote of confidence in its merits. Attendees of the preview event also got a tiny glimpse of a video of Killzone, from which it was all but impossible to formulate any informed opinions.
Finally, Harrison talked a bit of tech, unveiling an initiative called PlayStation Edge: “This is something that is very relevant to the game developer audience, but I think it’s also very relevant to consumers. What PlayStation Edge is all about is taking some of the advanced technology that we have invented within Worldwide Studios and deliver it free of charge to PlayStation 3 developers. There are two specific areas we are covering at the beginning of PlayStation Edge. The first is called GCM Replay. This is an incredibly powerful RSX profiling tool. It allows developers to eke out the highest possible performance from the graphics chip inside the PlayStation 3 and to give incredible feedback to game designers and developers as to how they are constructing their visual scenes.”
“The second area is in some highly optimised libraries for PlayStation 3 in the areas of geometry processing, animation and compression. All optimised specifically to take advantage of the SPUs. These are tremendous technical and creative advantages that PlayStation 3 has, and we want to give all developers access to the absolute pinnacle technology.”